Nav: Home

The voice is key to making sense of the words in our brain

July 12, 2019

Scientists at the Basque research centre BCBL conclude that the voice is fundamental for mentally presenting the meaning of words in the brain. This finding implies a greater knowledge about how sound waves bring additional information to words.

For years, neuroscientists have been trying to find out whether the voice influences the processing of information or whether we understand a word in one way or another depending on who pronounces it.

Now, a study by the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) in San Sebastian concludes that sound waves effectively transmit information beyond the lexical meaning of words.

This research, published online in the Journal of Memory and Language, has proven that words carry information indexed through the voice.

Led by Efthymia Kapnoula, the paper determines that the meaning we give to words is conditioned by factors that are not simply limited to lexical information. People, and more specifically their voices, have much to say in the mental representation of words.

A decade ago another study concluded that the speaker is influential when it comes to listening to a sentence. "This experiment showed that if we hear a child saying something like 'every night I drink a little wine before going to sleep,' our brain is surprised. However, it's not the same if this is said by an adult," Kapnoula says.

However, the BCBL team sought to go further and determine whether the additional information provided by the speaker's voice is stored in the interlocutor's brain as part of the lexical representation of the speaker's voice.

The learning of new words

"All the words a person knows make up what we call mental lexicon, and each of them is thought to be abstract in the sense that it only carries linguistic information. The identity of the person who pronounces the word is non-linguistic information and, until now, it was thought that it was not kept in the mental lexicon," explains the researcher.

The study has paid particular attention to whether the cognitive representations of words carry information about the voice of the speaker who pronounces them. Thus, the experiment consisted in participants learning a series of words they did not know, emitted by different voices.

"At those sessions we manipulated the frequency at which a spoken word in a specific voice was used to refer to an image. The results showed that the new words were activated faster when the voice matched the image," Kapnoula says.

The discovery involves understanding what mental lexicon consists in. "Understanding the nature of lexical representations is a prerequisite for all research related to words, as well as for discovering how people learn and process them," he claims.

Kapnoula acknowledges that there is still much to study in this area. "One possible direction lies in investigating whether this effect of the voice is even stronger in children, in whom mental lexicon is still developing more drastically," she concludes.
-end-
Bibliographic reference:

Efthymia C.Kapnoula; Arthur G.Samuel. 'Voices in the mental lexicon: Words carry indexical information that can affect access to their meaning'. Journal of Memory and Language Volume 107, August 2019, Pages 111-127 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2019.05.001

FECYT - Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology

Related Language Articles:

Why the language-ready brain is so complex
In a review article published in Science, Peter Hagoort, professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University and director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, argues for a new model of language, involving the interaction of multiple brain networks.
Do as i say: Translating language into movement
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a computer model that can translate text describing physical movements directly into simple computer-generated animations, a first step toward someday generating movies directly from scripts.
Learning language
When it comes to learning a language, the left side of the brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.
Learning a second alphabet for a first language
A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro.
Sign language reveals the hidden logical structure, and limitations, of spoken language
Sign languages can help reveal hidden aspects of the logical structure of spoken language, but they also highlight its limitations because speech lacks the rich iconic resources that sign language uses on top of its sophisticated grammar.
More Language News and Language Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...